As Threatened--Rohinton Mistry A Review

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As Threatened--Rohinton Mistry
A Review of A Fine Balance with sundry comments on other works.

As you may already have heard, Rohinton Mistry, a Canadian Writer, recently cancelled a book promotion tour here in the states due to the harassment he received at each airport he went through. The press made this out to be some big political statement about profiling, but I suspect Mr. Mistry was simply annoyed at being searched twice and three times in a day. I neither know nor care about his view of this matter. What I do care about is his superbly crafted fiction.

He has, to my knowledge, four books, each wonderful in its own way. The first, Swimming Lessons is a set of short stories which have as their unifying theme the apartment complex in which they take place. Each story presents interesting characters and situations and provides a great deal of insight into a culture and religion little known in the west.

There followed three novels. I will speak only of the second novel A Fine Balance. This was selected as a Oprah Club Book, which belies the usual stereotype one might see portrayed of such books. Ms. Winfrey's choices largely centered around thematic elements--dysfunctional families or cultural views. A Fine Balance falls into the latter category and it is a domestic epic. The story concerns the lives of four characters brought together because they all live or work in the same flat. The principle character is a Parsi woman whose husband has died some time ago, leaving her the meager rent-controlled flat in which she lives and from which her landlord wishes to evict her so that he can make it another high-priced condominium. To retain her apartment and support herself, the widow takes in a border, a student from the Himalayas. This student is Sikh. In addition, she retains the services of two Hindi itinerant tailors, Uncle and Nephew, who have left their village in search of better money and to escape the shadow of their past. Both of them started lives as the lowest of the low--leather workers, untouchables.

The story centers around the lives of these people during the middle seventies in India during an "internal state of emergency." In the course of this wonderful novel you get glimpses of the practices of three religions, and a real insight into the struggle to retain dignity in a truly oppressive, impoverished country.

Along the way you meet such characters as the Beggarmaster who guards and cares for the thousands of beggars in his area, collecting from them a majority of what they take in and providing for them some measure of security and food. You learn that it is common practice to take small children and make cripples of them so that they will collect more in begging. You also meet a man who collects human hair to send to the great wig factories for ultimate export to the west. From him you get some of the most amusing and insightful lines in the book. Paraphrasing a line that stuck in my mind, the hair collector responds to one of the tailors, telling him why he collects hair to make wigs. "Because people in the west are afraid of going bald. People in the west have so much money they can afford to be afraid of very silly things." For reasons that elude me, that really opened my eyes to the privileged way in which I live and of the real horrors of the third world.

Mistry presents to us characters that are nearly all likeable. (The single exception being the Town Leader who precipitates most of the crisis and trouble for the two tailors). We come to understand and love each of these characters and we follow them through good times into bad, and at least a little way back out again. The novel rings true through and through and it is compassionate and eye-opening. I would highly recommend it to all readers as an exercise in developing compassion and deepening the understanding of what the third world is like.

His most recent novel is called Family Matters and I've only just started it. So far, it is set in a completely different milieu than A Fine Balance. The family involved is considerable better off than the protagonists of A Fine Balance. The set-up of the story has intriguing similarities to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections in that the patriarch of a dysfunctional family has Parkinsonís disease. The story seems to be about the resolution of the internal conflicts in the family, just as, to some extent, Franzen's book is. However, the writing is so much less contrived, so much more immediately engaging. Mistry is a story-teller whereas Franzen is a self-styled "raconteur." Franzen's tales, as he made clear in his childish gaffe over being selected by Ms. Winfrey for her book club, are not meant for everyone. Only the intellectual elite will "get it." ("Stuff and nonsense" is the kindest reaction one can muster for such absurdity.) I'll let you know later about Mistry's book, but I expect it to be a very fine read.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 17, 2002 9:37 AM.

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